Coeducation and Mixing the Sexes: The Debate over Age-based Classes in Public Schools in the First Three Decades of the 20th Century

By Yves Verneuil

The “fundamental laws” of the 1880s maintained gender segregation in public schools in France. However, in the early 20th century, the authorities encouraged rural single-class schools to organise classes by age. Moreover, in 1905, the Congrès des Amicales d’Instituteurs et d’Institutrices (an association for schoolteachers) called for an aggressive coeducation policy. Some Catholic groups deliberately confused the two projects, speaking out against an educational policy that they considered to be both illegal and immoral. They decried a reform allegedly inspired by “Free Masonry” and intended to rob young girls of their modesty and thus take them away from the Church. Relying on bishops’ recommendations, this debate became a battle horse for the Union des Associations Catholiques de Chefs de Famille (a Catholic association for traditional families) and sparked tensions locally. Although divergences eventually arose among Catholics, the Law of 1933 did not put an end to these debates. And yet, the purpose of this reform was to improve the pedagogical efficiency of rural schools, not to challenge gender relations.

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